Leaving Bilboa and heading to Picos De Europa to do some hut to hut hiking at about 7500 feet. I arrived in the town of Poncebos around noon. Here is a diagram of my route. Poncebos is the black dot near the top and I would follow a counter clockwise path over 5 days
When I got to the parking lot in Poncebos, it looked a little sketchy for being able to park 5 days.
I decided to drive back about 5 miles to the town of Arenas, where there was a larger car park and a bus that takes you past the original car park and right to the trial head. This would forgo the 4 miles of walking along a very narrow road with steep cliffs and lots of traffic.
Here is a map of what I mean
While waiting for the bus I ran into this 82 yo man who was hiking the month long trail Camino de Santiago. I noticed him because of the shell he was carrying which is a calling card for that hike.
We caught the bus back up to Poncebos and I started the hike. I had no maps as you could not get them in the US, but I did have 3 separate offline GPS enabled apps on 2 phones to help with directions. Turns out that these would not be of great use to me and this endeavor was going to be one of the most challenging experiences I have undertaken.
Phase one of the hike was to hike a canyon route to village of Cain. It took about 4 hours and after a big uphill, it was pretty smooth on the downhill along a cliff edge.
The heat was brutal and would only get worse as the week progressed. Shade was at a premium.
On the below picture you can see the path work from right to left about half way up the rock cliff
I finally arrived in Cain
I checked into the Hostal and was surprised by the plush accommodations. After showierng and dropping my gear I walked the streets a bit, sat down by the river, looked up at the mountains I would need to climb the following day. It looked like a daunting task
I had dinner at the hostal and saw all these people going by with full packs
I had only a glorified day pack because I was sleeping in the hut system. I hope I wasn’t missing something and these guys were just opting to camp. My dinner was a blue cheese pizza. The region has a famous blue cheese operation so many dishes features their product. I liked the food, but a whole personal pizza using all blue cheese instead of mozzarella is a bit much to bear.
The next day I had a 2 hour hike up to another village and then a pretty steep ascent to the Refugio Jermosa which would be my overnight. This map shows my path from left to right
I would be crossing a lot of tight counter lines in my ascent…that means steep. I left around 10am after a meager breakfast. The path between villages was all road with about a 5-10% grade average
Arriving in the last bit of civilization before the climb I refilled my water the bathroom of a hostal and tried to summon up motivation even though I was already drenched in sweat and beaten down by the sun.
4 Km, not terrible but even though there were no English translations I did see the words “difficutad” and “warning” a fair amount in the description. I had 2 liters of water and knew that would be tight on a day like this. I should say now, that unlike in the US, there are not a great deal of markers (read none) and they really leave things up to the judgement of the hiker/climber whether this trail is appropriate. In the States, there would be signs all over about how much water you need and not to do if pregnant, old, young, etc. So I learned quickly that just because there was very little to dissuade you from going a certain direction you should not take this to mean it will be an easy route.
After a short warm up, the trail took on a minimum of 45 degree angle and would not ease up the rest of the way, rather only increasing up to about 75. 10 minutes after starting I was coming across cliff edges with chain ropes.
It is hard to see on the above picture, but the trail actually flows from right to left along the cliff. I guess the easy warm up was over. I passed a few groups do some full-on rock climbing above and below the trail. Even some of the hikers had helmets on.
A shot of the chains
I told myself I would stop every hour for water and rest. That quickly changed to every 30 minutes and then to every 15. Before even the first hour I was stopping with every patch of shade. The vertical was a challenge. In the US you would have long switchbacks, but here you had switchback that only zigged about 3 feet before zagging back the opposite way. The downside was, that it was brutal, and lots of sliding backwards, the upside was that you were gaining elevation quickly if you could summon the motivation to make a good 10 minute push between breaks.
Once breaking through the last bit of trees, I was completely exposed, following up a path of rock scree. Hard going. I finally found a large boulder to lie against for a break. I did not know it yet but the hard parts were still to come
I finally got to flat section, but this was just the calm before the storm
So many times this week, did I look around looking for the trail, and only realize that it was straight up a cliff side. First I would stare, and say, “that can’t be it?” but then see the tiny markings of either a crock cairn or displaced rocks and realize they really expected me to climb up that.
I was at one of those junctures.
A shot looking down on the trail I had been working on for last hour and another looking up on what was to come. Pictures never do the vertical angle justice
When I got the top of this latest sections I hiked 5 minutes off trail to hide in some shade and rest for 30 minutes
It hard to see, but on the above picture my next path was on the rock straight ahead working left to right at a 45 degree angle. They called this section the “Traverse” In my book, a traverse is when you cross over to another area on a relatively flat landscape. Not so much here.
After doing the traverse I took the following shot. You can see the trail and the shaded pointy rock where I had rested 45 minutes ago.
Things started to get real challenging now. I was doing hand over hand from here on out for the next couple hours.
I had run out of water. I had not seen anyone else since the climbers at the very beginning. Turns out that this is not the normal route to get up to the huts of the Picos de Europa. I was fortunate to find water running down the side of a rock. By angling my hand in the stream of water I could get it to come off the wall and into my bottle. I stayed here about 30 minutes drinking and filling up. I was partially in awe of my surroundings and partially in fear that I was somehow way off the route. A strange feeling.
After another 30 minutes of climbing I heard voices. It is hard to see in below picture but I saw people at about 11 o’clock on below picture. A string of about 20 in fact working along a path from right to left on a 10 degree slope.
It was at this point I knew I would be ok. I still had a long scramble to intersect them above me. I finally came up over an edge and saw the Jermosa Refugio
A true test to be sure. Proud of my accomplishment, I downed about 4 liters of water. I checked into the hut and then grabbed my flask and sat down to reflect on the today’s hike
No one spoke English, but I was talking to one guy about my route for tomorrow. He pointed to the below area
He said you follow left to right from bottom of pic at 20 degree angle trail, then half way through the picture you take an abrupt left turn and head straight up through those glaciers and then up through the notch at the top. Some other guys showed me pictures of them tackling the route last year and they were hanging on rock faces like Sylvester Stallone in Cliffhanger. It was at this time I saw/heard a rock slide at that exact point. Now if this was 10 years ago, I probably would have gone for it, but I am trying to be more cautious these days. They said there was another way by just following the left to right trail around the back of the mountain peak without zagging up through the snow. It would add a couple hours, but I was ok with that. The hut cooked dinner for everyone, as we marveled at the views from the table and even the picnic tables outside at the End of the World
After dinner everyone walked over a close hill to watch sunset
I did not sleep that well that night, surprisingly. I was up at 4am sitting outside. There was a full moon, so limited stars
I was up around 7 for breakfast and a picnic lunch they packed for me to carry me over to the next hut.
I started along the trail, soon seeing groups of mountain deer
Here is a look back at Refugio Jermosa on the right side of the picture
Even though temperatures were well into the 90s, I still ran across some snow
Here is the point where I got lost. My one GPS was way off the trail, my other one was looking good. I rechecked the good one 10 minutes later and it now matched the one way off the trail. I had descended 1000 ft when I should have made a turn while still on top.
Now to head back up
What made it more frustrating was that I asked a guide with another group if this was direction of Refugio Veronica and he said yes. Oh well. I eventually figured out where I was and realized I could backtrack an hour or so or try to cut straight across and reconnect with the trail. After this trip I determined this is not the type of environment you make your own trail to reconnect with the route. The trails are there for a reason, not because they were game trails, or just straightest path from A to B but because they were the only way from A to B. You are dealing with vertical peaks and deep drop-offs. Anyway I was ignorant at the time so I forged my own route through boulders.
It pretty quickly became a steep ascent that probably cause me more time than if I had gone back. I finally saw a marker for Veronica and promptly lost the trail again about 5 minutes later.
I saw the refugio in the distance and made a direct path. Falling through a snow drift up to my waist in the process. Glad it was only about 5 ft deep. I had to walk across some pretty tight areas to get to that silver weather station on the center-right of picture below
I was amazed that the guy manning it was selling water and beer. I loaded up on both as I was dry again on water with my losing the trail 2x. The hiking was about to get even more intense once leaving Veronica. After coming up over a ridge, there was a near vertical descent. The picture below shows the flat ground below and the drop off is the sandy color
You can see some cables in various places that are intended to slow your descent.
What kind of hiking trail was this!
I finally made it down and up over another bitch of a notch between 2 peaks
I got my first look at the next hut at the base of a vertical rock wall
This hut was mostly climbers spending their days on the big rock.
The dinner that night was not as good as previous night but still welcome after the 7 hours in the exposed sun.
Mountain goats were all around the camp that night
On the top picture above, with the single mountain goat you can see my intended route for the following day. I basically was to follow straight behind him up to that rounded peak in the center of the picture. It was to be a short hike 2-3 hours to get to Refugio Cabrones.